Collect: craft heaven at Somerset House

Collect begs the question: where does craft begin, and art end? Or craft end, and art begin? And what are either of them anyway?

The show has moved from the Saatchi Gallery to Somerset House after ten years. Somerset House is a far more engaging and established venue, though navigating the various floors and wings is a challenge.

The immediate draw at Collect is my favourite wood designer in the world, Angus Ross. When I die and go to heaven I’ll be an apprentice in his Aberfeldy workshop, the small Highlands town where he has his own stand of trees. I made a pilgrimage to the place a while back, on some specious excuse, seeing the steamers where his team heat and bend the wood into extraordinary shapes. His unstable stool is rightly in the Dundee V&A, where he is a design champion.

Ross is one of eight designers in the Craft Scotland gallery. This year he’s showing two new “Sutherland” pieces: a grand chair, with a shaped seat and triangular doors in the arms that fold down for a drink or book rest.

Angus Ross, Sutherland chair

Angus Ross. Sutherland chair.

A curved cabinet in the same  new look, with little shoulders that curve up.  It takes a little getting used to.   Both retail for £14,000; miraculous photos from the workshop on the company blog here.

Angus Ross, Sutherland Cabinet

Angus Ross, Sutherland Cabinet

So what is “craft”? There is a handy definition on the gallery wall.

“Established in 2008, Craft Scotland is the national development agency for craft,” the text on the entryway declares. “This showcase presents high-quality contemporary Scottish craft. Discover pieces by eight Scotland-based makers working in silver and gold, wood, ceramics, weave and metal.

“Expect experimental techniques and innovative materials as the makers play with scale and perceptions of materiality.”

I like craft. I like people that make things, and I’m curious how they do it. On a quick first hour or so in Somerset House – not enough to even whip through half the rooms – I wonder how to define it. The impression is that “craft” – as the Craft Scotland text suggests – reverts at its most simple definition to materials, like ceramics, glass, and wood.

Particularly ceramics. When a gallery doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with itself, you find shelves dotted with what are fundamentally pots. They are mishapen, weird, “innovative”; but in the end something made of clay, or similar, that could hold water. It can become an exercise in ceramic virtuosity.

The first edition of Collect was launched at the V&A in 2004.   This “international art fair for modern craft and design” – ahem –  boasts 400 “living artists” this year in over 40 galleries from three continents.   Mild health warning:  Collect carries a hefty £23 entry charge, more than a blockbuster exhibition; this is not your Granny’s craft show, and they’re signalling the target market.

Back to Scotland, and these admirable  silver beakers, by Hamish Dobbie, a heavy, reassuring, medieval quality to the forms, hall-mark stamped, at £800 a piece.   He’s a Silversmithing and Jewellery graduate of Glasgow School of Art, another stamp of quality.

Silversmith Hamish Dobbie

Silversmith Hamish Dobbie

(Wood construction by Noami Mcintosh above. )

One couldn’t pass over the work of Oki Ozumi at the Esh Gallery. Surreal vases that flicker with kaleidoscopic light effects: immensely satisfying to the eye. From Tokyo, a graduate of the Brera Academy in Milan, she has shown in the Venice Biennale and has work in the Vatican, and modern art museums in Italy and Japan. 
The work is made of piled pieces of industrial glass, the poorest part of the sheet. It reminds me of how Roman glass would come with a natural stain, often green, as they trialed manufacturing methods.

Oki Ozumi

Kaleidoscopic light effects: Oki Ozumi

I’ve twice covered the African Art Fair in Somerset House. Perhaps that’s why my stand-out work from Collect would be this painterly piece by Mawuena Kattah, on ceramic tiles. “Auntie, Mum and Me talking about my fabric collection,” a one-off glazed ceramic tile frieze. At £8,000 it’s a good buy. Its the first time she’s worked in ceramics.

Mawuena Kattah, in tile. “Auntie, Mum and Me talking about my fabric collection”

I like the ink drawings to the side (Spider and Leaves, and Octopus Vase, £700 a piece) and the wall textile hangings, in a collaboration with “textile practitioner” (oh, the nomenclature) Laura Slater are also enormously tempting at £1,000, from the art and design studio Intoart.

Across the way is Swap, 2019. These intriguing, eerily nostalgic, even ghostly (alright, haunting) pieces combine the work of photographer Kasia Wozniak and jeweller Lucie Gledhill. Using nitric acid, they swap, or perhaps extract, silver from the jewellery to the photograph. The exhibit says Wozniak is known for wet plate collodion photography and Gledhill for chain-making.  Clever and effective cross-over work.

Photographer Kasia Wozniak and jeweller Lucie Gledhill, working collaboratively.

Back to Scotland, again (there’s a bias creeping in here). One pilgrimage I haven’t yet made is to North Lands Creative; this glass-making studio, lies in Lybster, on the far north Scottish coast, 40 minutes south of John O’Groats. Backed by both Creative Scotland and the British Council, a national charity that celebrates “outstanding British and international creativity in glass”.

The stand includes James Maskrey’s striking Victoriana Obscura. They are glass trompe l’oeil; what looks like pooled oil is solid glass and suspended in it, more nostalgic photographs, like some medical anatomy collection. Hard to photograph by the windows.

James Maskrey glass artist

James Maskrey: Victoriana Obscura

This, and maybe other exhibits here, take us back to William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Here’s an object that is beautiful, though only posing as something useful.   Perhaps there’s an organic definition of craft:  it derives from a material, or action, considered useful.

James Maskrey glass artist

James Maskrey

I ended up snaffling one of Emma Baker’s whisky glasses, for a friend, with gold-leaf in base and ice ball, and may go back for a companion gift.

Whisky glasses Emma Baker North Lands Creative

Emma Baker, Northlands Creative

For a junior student of mosaics, Collect is thought-provoking. For “makers” (something “artists” may, or may not be) of mosaics, how does one compete here – or look to break convention, with “experimental techniques and innovative materials”.

I’ve seen mosaic work in the African Art Fair, positioned as art,  from the remarkable Spier Arts Academy.  The closest here is Ulla Forsel’s Fragment 1 & 2, in blown and gold coated coloured sheet glass (£1,500).

Ulla Forsel Collect

Ulla Forsel’s Fragment 1 & 2

To finish, more glass, and maybe some other images thrown in. There was a strong Asian contingent in Collect. I’m always fond of a bench, and here’s Man Sitting on the Bench, by Korea’s Sung-won Park, from cast, blown, and painted glass (made in sections, including the hair).

Sung-won Park glass artist Korea Collect Somerset House

Man sitting on the Bench, Sung-won Park

At the London Glassblowing Gallery, the Gold Glustra Bowls, by Katherine Coleman, deliciously confusing and intriguing (£8,750 the pair). In the gift-for-the-man-who-has-everything league, glassy ink pens and quills. Near Tower Bridge, down the road from White Cube Bermondsey, they offer day taster courses. Tempting. Just don’t inhale…

Katherine Coleman London Glassblowing Factory

Katherine Coleman, showing with the London Glassblowing Gallery